I wrote to Paul Lisicky during our silent spring of 2020, as a global pandemic sent the world home. Each time I emailed him to fix a date for our interview, I knew it wouldn’t be safe to meet in Brooklyn, New York, where we both live. Yet I held out for the possibility that our two minds might somehow come together to commune. I thought back to the rich conversations Paul and I had shared over the course of a week in Portland, Oregon, in 2017, when I was his student at the Tin House Summer Workshop. It was our fond memories of those days that made the interview he gave me over Zoom in June entirely bittersweet.
Our conversation flowed associatively. We jumped across questions, which I’d shared before speaking. (“I did think about them a little bit,” Paul said, “but I didn’t want to think too much. It would be really inert if I memorized something.”) Paul, sixty-one, reflected on scenes from his youth in southern New Jersey, which form the tableau of his memoir-in-essays, Famous Builder (2002). He invited me into vignettes of the extended visits he’s made to Provincetown, Massachusetts, since his years as a writing fellow there during the AIDS crisis, which is the subject of his most recent book, Later: My Life at the Edge of the World (2020). He revisited his books Lawnboy (1998), which is his debut novel and a shimmering queer coming-of-age story, and The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship (2016), which weaves an account of a friend’s death with the story of a painful breakup. Each work offered Paul a chance to think about complexity, uncertainty, and unexpectedness, which are always fully rendered in his sentences. The joy of our conversation, as Paul told me, was that it offered the freedom and the “permission to think across time.”
Paul’s oeuvre concerns death and desire, home and earth, freedom and silence, restlessness and consciousness—and yet I believe his ultimate subject is time, or, rather, the self in time. As Paul writes of time in Lawnboy, “It’s always tricking us into thinking it’s taking us forward, when, in fact, it’s always coiling around like a spring, bringing everything we’ve known back to us.” On the question of personhood, Paul is exceptionally insightful, for even as we can be only ourselves, he understands that “you don’t have to live the life that was handed you… you may indeed claim your self,” words from Famous Builder that I return to often. And yet, as Paul writes in Later, “it takes so much work to be myself.” It is a privilege and a pleasure to bear witness to Paul’s process of self-fashioning, itself inseparable from his ethos of making, creating, and building new worlds for his readers.
I. “BIG BASINS OF OPENNESS”
THE BELIEVER: What does “home” mean to your writing?
PAUL LISICKY: I love that question because it feels like all my books need to be in a very particular place in the world. They get so much of their energy from a kind of locale that doesn’t disappear. The trees are specific, the smell of the rain is specific, the animals in those places are specific. The interaction between the speaker or narrator and those places is really crucial to make a kind of energy happen. Lawnboy, for instance, had to be set in south Florida because there was something about the lore and strangeness and mystery of that particular set of trees. Many of those trees look sort of man-made, even though they’re from the natural world. And Provincetown depends on its proximity to water and to the wilderness outside of Town, that cramped, three-mile strip—that big, serpentine strip where everyone’s packed into the chute of Commercial Street.
Home, to my work, is never one stable place. My work needs to keep finding different homes from book to book. I could never write about a Provincetown that was restricted simply to houses or rooms. It always depends on the world outside, and not just the social world but the wild, unchartable world that we don’t have the means to put measurements to. Home is always some volatile place that the speaker has to be alive to—has to be asking questions about the experience of this place. That’s not just about a community bound to history, but what it makes that speaker feel. All these places seem to have an element of mystery to them that is just outside the possibility of human naming, and that’s why I’m drawn to them. There’s something about them that keeps the speakers or narrators in a state of questioning and aliveness.
BLVR: Perhaps you’re trying to access a shiftiness or uncanniness of home.
PL: It might just be that the man-made places I write about can have only so much pressure on them. Where I grew up, in southern New Jersey, it was so tailored and curated—a kind of suburban, middle-class environment, where everything had the human thumb on it. You couldn’t even look at a forest without it being trimmed. Any bit of open land was planted.
BLVR: You write, “The desire for the ocean has always come before anything.” You return to the sea throughout your work. What is it about water that conjures feeling for you?
PL: What I loved about spending time near the ocean was that it wasn’t charted. It was always in motion, going through high tide and low. And it felt of us. I read somewhere this morning that only one-fifth of the ocean floor is mapped. The unmapped areas of the ocean would cover twice the surface area of the planet Mars. As much as we fish the oceans and destroy the oceans and dump our garbage in them, they’re still not ours. They still resist us. I feel that in my body, every time I’m close to those big basins of openness. They’re always going to resist my knowing.
BLVR: Your memoirs chart your early artistic life, whether it’s writing liturgical music or short stories on yellow legal pads before work, or arriving at a writers’ residency in Provincetown. Was there a moment when you knew you would write literature?
PL: I didn’t always know I was going to write literature, but I knew I had to make things in order to survive, as melodramatic as that sounds. At four or five, I knew that making things was going to be central to my life. When I was a kid of that age, I was making up songs and designing little communities. There was an element of playfulness about it, but I also felt really serious about it and committed. It was the way I stayed alive. It was the way I said, This is how I feel.
I remember as a young kid—I had to have been super young, but I was old enough to know that this particular urgency was unique—being excited about something. I remember thinking, I have to tell someone this. I have to show someone this, and if I can’t, I’m going to blow up and die. That’s where art starts, at that moment. I felt like that insight or feeling had to be shared with someone else in order for it to matter, in order for it to have meaning. It was not something I could bear holding within myself. I had to let someone else into that space. It came really early. I certainly didn’t make things as a kid with that kind of overt philosophy—I was not a heady child. But that urgency has never let up for me. It’s a way to be present. It’s a way to think about other people. It’s not just about me, but about participating in some force that I don’t or can’t put a name to. It almost feels holy to me.
BLVR: Evan, the protagonist of Lawnboy, comes into his own through making, through becoming a caretaker of the earth. He is relieved to finally say, “I’d found a way to be in the world.” Who is he to you?
PL: I started that book in the fall of 1991. I was writing it during the height of the AIDS years. Evan, in some weird way, still feels really alive to me, even though as a writer, I would write [Lawnboy] much differently now. I have different chops, and I have a much stronger sense of how to structure a book. That book is written on an intuitive, sentence-by-sentence level. It wanted to do more than I could, but I still feel so much like that kid. He’s always in motion. He wants to shake off the structure of silence that’s restricting his ability to communicate with his family. He wants to matter. He wants to make connections to other people. He wants to be someone of value and wants to contribute, but he has no clue how. He has lots of desires. He has to make up his life. It’s the last years before the internet. The only tools he has are those that are in front of him.
What differs between how I understand myself and how Evan understands himself is that he’s pretty sure the only way he’s going to come to this transformation, for lack of a better word, is to be connected romantically to someone else. In a lot of ways, Later is in dialogue with that book. Later is about the same structures of silence that wreak psychological havoc on a group of people and on intimacy between men—on the culture of men in Provincetown that the narrator wants to connect to. But that’s finally a book about saying, No, I’m not going to shut up anymore when I’m hurt.
Later has less faith in an ongoing relationship over time. I don’t mean that in a jaded way—the speaker knows that if the right person doesn’t come along, it’s OK. It might be possible to live a meaningful queer life that isn’t tethered to one person. I think that’s how those two books talk to each other—what I’ve learned over the decades between 1995 and when I finished Later, in 2019.
BLVR: I love the idea of your books being in conversation with one another across time.
PL: I like the idea of interrogating myself from book to book, and not writing a series of books that is organized around the same trajectory, into which I just insert different nouns and verbs from sentence to sentence. Later is also in conversation with The Narrow Door, a book that wants to move toward a point of convergence and order. I don’t mean to undervalue that impulse in the book, because it was the right impulse for the particular set of circumstances that move that book along. But with Later, I wanted to make sure it didn’t really cohere too much. I wanted to emphasize fragmentation. I wanted it to kind of fall apart, because it seemed true to the experience of having lived alongside and with that ongoing epidemic. It didn’t and still doesn’t feel orderly. The way I’m describing it, it sounds pretty engineered and deliberate, but when I looked at Later and saw it converging and felt it being too orderly, I said, I’m not doing this. I knew I needed the template of the previous book to say, Here’s another way of seeing. Each book wants to interrogate the one before it—if not necessarily in content, then maybe in structure and vision.
II. “IF THE WORK KNOWS TOO MUCH, I’M SUSPICIOUS”
BLVR: As readers, we see you resisting simplicity or easy answers. We see you or your characters arguing with themselves and asking, Is this what I want? Am I prepared to accept the consequences of my desires?
PL: I don’t want any of those speakers or narrators to settle too easily. I mean, sometimes they do. Transformation feels like, well, maybe I have to live in this space in order to see how it’s not home. But there’s something charismatic about certainty, isn’t there? It’s completely seductive. I think I should know better, but I’m drawn to those people.
BLVR: There is nothing sexier than confidence.
PL: And we don’t even think that that confidence probably comes from patriarchy and a militaristic way of seeing the world in terms of right and wrong. Why should that be appealing? It’s funny: last night I was looking through my Dropbox. I had this little photo of four gay men who I thought were really hot from, say, fifteen years ago. I looked at each one and thought, Each of these guys is a jerk! I couldn’t have seen it then. Now when I look at them, it’s like, Paul, do you have any idea how they all would have found a way to wound you? And there would have been something kind of erotic about that. That’s part of my learning process. I’m really sensitive to certainty. So how do I push into uncertainty? How do I think into it?
BLVR: This is a quality of your whole oeuvre, this thinking into uncertainty.
PL: I like that we can talk about more than one book. That feels liberating to me because it gives me permission to think across time. I really do want to develop a vision. I really want to make a body of work. I don’t want simply to write one book, even though anyone who is lucky enough to be remembered is often remembered for one thing. I think of what I’m doing as part of a longer project. That could be a totally old-fashioned idea at this point in time, but it keeps me engaged.
BLVR: You don’t shy away from confronting complexity or from trying to write a sentence that can hold two truths at the same time. Later, too, blends the idea of a queer utopia with the wreckage of a community.
PL: It’s about trying to hold two opposites at once. That’s not something I’m deliberate about in each sentence, but I know—when I’m writing, when I’m thinking, when I’m interrogating—if my thoughts are too much in one direction. If the work knows too much, I’m suspicious. I feel a question and a concern and a dissatisfaction. I’ll ask, Oh, what’s wrong with this?
In regard to Later, it would have been so easy to romanticize and idealize Provincetown, especially the Provincetown of that era, because romanticism is built into its structure. It’s incredibly beautiful. It feels safe to lesbian and gay people. One could very easily write a rhapsody, yet it would feel false. It occurred to me in the writing of the book that a lot of the things I’m drawn to about Provincetown are also things that annoy me about Provincetown. Commercial Street, which in some ways looks like this inviting rural drive—it’s only, like, a few feet wide—is also this dangerous channel where you have to be vigilant about watching for trucks and their extended mirrors, about bicyclists. You have to be incredibly awake in order to move down the street without getting hurt or hurting someone else.
And it’s also a tremendously isolated place. It’s hard to get to. There’s no way you can get there easily, not without some dues-paying. Even if you have the money to fly directly to Boston and take a plane over, it’s not unlikely that your flight in Cape Cod could be delayed or canceled. Then you have no place to go for the night but a hotel. It’s all mixed into the experience of the place. On one hand, it can feel welcoming, but it also has all the drawbacks of small-town gossipy culture. You have to admit, I might be activated by some of these things I don’t exactly like in order to participate in my experience of this place.
BLVR: It makes for a more honest retelling of a place and a time.
PL: I had no idea that the place would be a different one by 1996. The Provincetown I moved to in 1991 was unique, and much more precarious than I’d realized. I’d thought, Oh, this place has always been here.
BLVR: Jumping back in time, there’s a scene in Famous Builder in which your father asks you, “What do you want to leave the world?” You write, “…all at once I tell him of a box.” What would you fill it with?
PL: There, I’m listening to my brother play the oboe in a concert. The unspoken part of that scene is that maybe I’m ceding my role as the family artist to my brother, which comes with simultaneous admiration and grief. My father was asking, How do you want to matter? How do you want to live outside the confines of your mortal body? I think that back then, writing physical books would have been the way to live beyond the cage of my death. I still want my books to matter, but the things I would want to put in that box are harder to quantify. Kindness in everyday interaction—that’s really important to how I move through the world and make meaning of other people. I think about the attention and listening and encouragement I’ve given to my students. I’d want that to be there. But, like kindness, it doesn’t have a shape. It can’t really be contained. It’s amorphous. My love for animals, my respect for nonhuman living creatures—all of that is really important to me. I think the best we can do is hope that those expressions are taken in by others. But they’re certainly not anything that could be put in a box. Maybe recognizing that is part of growing up or acceding to the limitations of what art can do.
I really do want people to read my books after I’m gone, even just a few people. That was part of the essence of that scene. I thought, It would be enough if just one person came upon a box and said, Someone lived. This makes me feel less lonely to see this stuff.
BLVR: The container could be anything.
PL: It’s true. What is a box?
III. SOLITUDE REQUIRES AGENCY
BLVR: You return to people and characters and memories over and over in order to relearn what you think you understand about them, or to reexamine who you may have been to one another. Your relationship with them changes. How has the past changed for you?
PL: I’m constantly thinking about the people who’ve shaped me over time. I don’t want that vision, that perspective, to be static. It occurred to me in writing Later—same with Famous Builder—that I could write about my mother or I could write about my father, if this was just one particular version of them, based on a particular point in time. I wasn’t obligated to write the impossible, totalizing picture of who they were. Once I realized that, it gave me permission to reimagine them across the span of many books. The fun mom of some of the other memoirs is a lot more troubled in Later. I wrote a book that took her suffering and disappointment and also her fire seriously. I wouldn’t want the portrait of her in Later to be her only portrait, because she was also funny as hell and so sweet and the kind of mom who wanted to be a kid herself. Nothing pleased her more than being in a group of kids. She had a sense of humor that we had. There was something really instructive about that. It occurred to me that I don’t really, as I go through life, have to behave the appropriate age. She wasn’t always that person, but she could be that person. And I knew how liberating it was for her to fall into teenage humor. Our culture teaches us to suppress or destroy our younger selves. But we’re fourteen-year-olds as much as forty-year-olds. We’re all those all at once.
BLVR: It becomes a question of what comes to the surface: What do you emphasize and what do you hide? Those are everyday negotiations, decisions we calibrate all the time.
PL: I think if you’re not calibrating it all the time, you’re pinning yourself to a trajectory of life that implies an arc of progress, or an arc of appropriate behavior from point to point—or, even worse, an arc of tying oneself to one generation, which is so common now. I never felt terribly connected to the people of my own generation. I didn’t like the music they liked, and I liked people who were a little older than I was, and now I like the music of people who are younger than I am. I don’t have to follow those old markers that are externally put on us. It would be a mistake not to say they’re there, but, hell, they can be resisted if one expects to grow. You can listen to people who are younger than you, and who might know a hell of a lot more than you do. There has to be a kind of back-and-forth conversation going on inside us.
BLVR: The inability to have that dialogue is lonely.
PL: I don’t want anyone to feel lonely. Ours is a culture that’s built on loneliness.
BLVR: Is there a difference between loneliness, isolation, and solitude?
PL: We often use them all together, but I think isolation might not be chosen for us. It’s foisted upon us. And I think loneliness, which can be a facet of isolation, requires belonging or connection first. You don’t really know you’re lonely until you’ve lost someone, or you at least have the dream of meeting someone again as a possibility. And solitude feels to me like a way to turn those situations into productive ones. It seems to require agency, wondering what to make of one’s separation from others. Solitude feels more positive to me. It feels like it asks for hard work at every turn.
I feel like I’m living in solitude now, by and large, and it feels like an incredibly active experience, mentally. I’m trying to stay alive. I speak from a position of privilege. I’m a professor, I’m off for the summer, and I’m on sabbatical for the fall. It’s different for me because I’m not going to work tomorrow. But the danger of this luxury is that I could spend months being inert, filling my days going from one site to another on the internet, behaving like a rat hitting the lever again and again to feel stimulated, and not making anything of this experience. I have a clarity of vision I haven’t had in a while. That’s not to say I haven’t been super down, but I feel like I’ve seen through people in a way I hadn’t before.
BLVR: What do you mean?
PL: I mentioned this book I’m writing about my father. He died five years ago, this week. It occurred to me, as I started getting to the stretch in which he appears, that I really haven’t mourned him at all. I’ve been moving around so much and distracting myself from contending with the force of him on my life. It’s not like my life is that public, but it’s public enough. When you’re with others a lot, you don’t realize how many of your actions are really performances to look a certain way. Solitude deprives us of that theater. And if you’re lucky to have some tools, if you’re not so depressed, it’s a chance to refine what, in fact, you know, how you see, where your own shortcomings are, where your blind spots are. I’ve been thinking about how my love for certain individuals has kept me from not seeing certain traits. There’s something stunning and humbling about that. To me, that would not have come without solitude.
IV. A LONG-AGO WORLD
BLVR: Should we talk about joy?
PL: I like queer joy!
BLVR: What’s queer joy? Is it something you write toward?
PL: It’s not something I’m aware of. I think I’d be wary of forcing it, but I know it when it comes. It’s always disarming. It always feels collective. It’s about bodies. It could be dancing or sex or whatever. And it’s not primarily about language, but about respecting the beasts in ourselves. It feels like there’s some kind of dissolve that goes on within people. For instance, I’m a little bit suspicious of Walt Whitman’s sense of merging, because I believe in boundaries, but I like the idea of boundaries loosening, too. I don’t know if that exactly happens at the Pines Party or at Bear Week, even though those were attempts to sell it. And it can erupt in those situations, which now seem of a long-ago world.
BLVR: Where is queer joy today?
PL: My sense is that queer people have been so patient. We’ve allowed ourselves to abide this situation of difficulty and isolation. Where does it leave us if there aren’t those communal gatherings that help us experience that?
I’m trying to think of another word for joy—solidarity feels too cheap. There’s something anarchic about it. Anarchy is a problematic term to use right now, politically, but joy isn’t something that has a recipe or a neat shape. It just arises between people. You are subsumed and humbled. It doesn’t last. It just goes, and that’s what’s lovely about it.
BLVR: It almost feels Dionysian. It overtakes you, leaving just as quickly. And even in its ephemerality, it holds you. How has desire been instructive for you?
PL: I’ve described desire in The Narrow Door as the thing “that feeds us just as it depletes us.” It’s obnoxious to quote oneself, but I’ve always been aware of desire as a life-force and also something that can do one in. Desire is something that can go out of control. I’ve always been really curious about that pivot, that edge, that thin line between the thing that makes us alive and the thing that just could take us asunder. At the same time, to complicate it—I know William Blake has smart things to say about this—but if desire isn’t attended to, it’s soul-killing. By being attended to, I don’t necessarily mean experiencing sexuality regularly. I’m talking about being in conversation with it. How do I feel? Where is this feeling taking me? Do I not like this? When do I say, Stop? And am I opposing myself? I think every book of mine in some ways has been about an ongoing negotiation with desire and its complexity.
BLVR: I’m reminded of the epigraph of E. M. Forster’s Howards End, “Only connect…” Everyone gets it wrong. They think Forster means connecting with one another, but what he means is one’s inner self connecting with one’s erotic self. He means it as a suggestion for transgression, for crossing a boundary within oneself.
PL: You’re articulating something that’s much more profound.
BLVR: Well, I’m not; Forster did. Your work engages with the process of seeing oneself differently or letting yourself be seen differently. Is this a way of not just existing but surviving? How is transformation a means of survival?
PL: Or even leaving an old skin behind. I like looking at what has felt heavy and weighty and stultifying, and just saying, Enough, as a way to begin again. How do we keep ourselves young and replenished and nourished and not anchored by all the ways we’ve understood ourselves or we’ve been told to understand ourselves? How to tap into the energy that we brought to our youth?
BLVR: What has it been like, writing about your experiences with a former partner who’s also a gifted writer?
PL: No one has quite asked the question in that way, and I appreciate it, because the struggle of that was a major part of my life for years. It’s complex, because I was the first reader of Mark [Doty]’s work. I gave him a lot of feedback. I loved the experience of listening to something right away. I loved saying, “This is what I love, and maybe you’re not doing this here.” It was a tremendous education to see how someone’s work changed over time. What came with that was the struggle of maintaining my own sense of self as a writer. I knew it would be really easy to get swept up into the role of sidekick, or accomplice, or unnamed collaborator. I wanted to make sure I was writing a vision of my own, that I was developing my own line of thinking. And I wanted to do that in a way that didn’t feel like I was competing with his work. In the later years of our relationship, we gave lots of readings together and—we never talked a lot about this—it was a kind of activism in the aughts, before any civil rights protections came into play, like marriage equality. We were appearing as a working couple to college students a lot. And I just didn’t want to be the kid or the underling. I wanted to do something valuable that was equal to his work. I remember that as a daily struggle, because I wanted it to be enacted with respect for his work, and I wanted to keep myself alive. My own writing was partly an experience of self-making. My writing was how I grew up and learned to connect with other people. I felt like I had a duty to respect all that, not just for myself, but for the people who helped take me to that place.
I know there are plenty of people, especially younger people, who’ve read Later but who have no idea about that relationship or don’t know Mark’s work. It was many years of hard work, and it changed once we were no longer together. We were a couple for sixteen years of my life. We were good friends for four years before that. And in the ten years after the sixteen years, we’ve been in contact pretty much through texts. I’m not Mark’s first reader anymore. The cool thing is that I’ll write something for The New York Times and not show it to anyone. That would’ve been crazy to my idea of self twelve years ago, because I was always looking for his approval or vetting of things. But I learned to stand on my own. I write a lot of work on my own and only show complete manuscripts, say, to my friend Elizabeth McCracken or my other friend Polly Burnell. That’s only after I’ve sat with something for a long time.
BLVR: Trying to hold that complexity for another is an act of beauty and generosity.
PL: I wanted the “M.” of The Narrow Door to be different from the Mark of Later, who’s the Mark I knew before we even knew we’d be together. I wanted him to have some space in his representations. I didn’t want my portrait of him to be defined by our unraveling, which was not characteristic of our relationship at all. We got along really well, in a really brotherly way.
V. TO SOUND UNBIDDEN
BLVR: How do you use sound?
PL: I’m not really happy until a sentence has a certain cadence. That might involve repetition or some constellation of words that resembles in my mind a line from a song. Once I feel like there’s some connection between that sound and whatever’s going on in my inner life, then that feeds another line, and another line. I often read my work aloud in a mumbling way as I’m writing it. I want to hear it in my voice box. I want it to sound unbidden. I certainly want it to have sense and meaning, but I also want another life for it, not just simply to make shapes in the air. It’s the pleasure of words against one another, which is why we love music—it transcends some kind of armor or stricture. Sometimes when I’m giving readings, I’m not even thinking about the meaning, which probably annoys some people, but I really want it to move like a song, and to touch your mind and heart as a song would. And my hope is that you will come back to it and keep coming back to it.
BLVR: I can’t think of a better technique for making a work indelible. That’s what we keep returning to, the sound. The meaning may change, but the words stay in the blood.
PL: That’s hard to articulate after you’ve put a book aside. Consciously, I’ll remember certain images of a novel or an essay, and I won’t be able to articulate the sound, but the sound does become part of your DNA in a really profound, bodily way.
BLVR: How do you know when a work is finished, and when do you know it’s the way you want it?
PL: It’s often the case that I can’t see any other solution around the choices I’ve made at a given moment. I’m always wary of overproducing something, because I know I have that tendency to try too hard and to make it too perfect. I have to hang back and allow some of the thread to feel just a little ripped. I don’t want it to seem too processed.
My editor, Fiona McCrae, was incredible with Later. She had plenty of suggestions to make quite late in the book that I initially rolled my eyes about. But everything she said was so respectful of the work. It was attuned to where I could push a little more. It would have been a little less nourished, a little underfed without her pushing me. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to work with someone who’s really in sync with your vision and sees around your blind spots. Fiona always has wished the best for me. I’ve worked with her since 2000. I was a lot younger then. Not that many people get to work with someone over time anymore.
BLVR: What will it take for you to keep making art?
PL: I don’t know how not to do it. I would feel awful if I weren’t doing it. It’s not like I don’t go through months, especially late in the semester, when my involvement is with my own students’ work. That’s not without its own artistic pleasure, because I think when you’re making suggestions to people, you’re in a sense cocreating something. But when I’m not in that situation, I have to keep making things, because otherwise I don’t feel grounded to the earth. I don’t know what I think. I don’t have a rudder. I think I need a rudder in order to be a citizen.